I'm a big fan of the Total War series. I love persistent army and city management (none of that skirmish map, Star Craft mindlessness for me), and the slower, tactical combat is infinitely satisfying. And while I certainly appreciate the attempt at realism that Medieval and Empire try to establish, it always breaks the immersion when I eventually conquer the known world; seeing Scottish flags flying over Athens, Greece just looks silly. So upon launching King Arthur II - The Roleplaying Wargame, I thought to myself, "Sure, I'm going to be fighting mythical creatures and such, but at least it will probably have a fantasy-esque immersion of its own". I suppose that turned out to be true, but this game reminded me that immersion isn't the only thing a game needs in order to be fun.
Whereas the first King Arthur game dealt with the whole Excalibur, Lady in the Lake, Knights of the Round Table tropes, King Arthur 2 centers on Arthur's son William, many years after the events we are all familiar with. Arthur has been grievously wounded by evil magic and in his absence, demonic forces have arisen and laid waste to the whole of England. William must simultaneously search for a cure to his father's malady and gather an army (or four) to repel the forces of darkness from the land.
Right off the bat, narratively, developer Neocore Games had all but shot their wad on the first game. When you name the game "King Arthur", you really want access to his story, the one we all know. And while it is admirable of them to risk continuing the adventure on past its natural ending point, I'm not sure it's all that successful. Without the anchor of nostalgia and familiarity, the story and setting turn out to be pretty ho-hum. Perhaps it has something to do with the way the story is told.
Remember the "choose your own adventure" line of books? Many RPG developers would credit them as one of the sources of modern RPG storytelling. Neocore took that inspiration a bit literally, as King Arthur 2 is basically a computerize version of those books. A large portion of the game consists of moving your hero to a scroll icon on the map and listening to a gravelly-voiced man lead you through an adventure story. After each scene, you are asked to make a decision: do you talk to the hermit druid or the pious monk? Do you attack an enemy encampment from the front or the rear? Each decision you make takes the narrative in a (very slightly) different direction and every so often it ends in a real battle. Don't get me wrong, the writing is decent and very descriptive, but if I wanted to listen to a fantasy audio book, I would go download A Game of Thrones. I play games to be part of the story, not a silent observer.
The rest of King Arthur 2 does attempt to reproduce the basics of a Total War game. The heroes you meet along your adventures act as generals for your armies which you use to defend your land and expand into the demonic countryside. There is also a very rudimentary city building and research component, but it's only function is to give slight passive bonuses to your generals and troops. Also making a comeback from the previous game is the morality meter. Acting good/evil, Christian/Druidic opens up different magic spells and recruitable units. Of course, like all alignment systems, the big weakness here is that there is no reward for staying neutral, so it only makes sense to pick a moral direction and sprint for it as fast as possible, which essentially makes the roleplaying choices moot. Finally, your hero/generals and your troops can all level up in standard RPG fashion, letting you choose to increase one stat over another, add magic powers and special passive bonuses, etc. In this, the game actually does shine, as you will come to identify with and feel ownership for the people that you've spent so much time leveling.
The visuals are colorful, luminescent, vibrant...and surprisingly, that's a pretty big problem. In an effort to establish a fairy-tale world, Neocore loaded the game with what amounts to a constant sheen of rainbow light and effects. While this does have its upside (the transition from autumn to winter is quite stunning), most of the time it's a struggle to make sense of what's going on. On the strategic map, it's all a blur of super-bright trees and grass. The visual difference between the demonic and human lands is evident enough, but trying to figure out where your borders end and another human king's begin is pretty difficult. This leads to a feeling of detachment, as it's hard to get invested in lands that you can't even identify as being your own without the use of the mini-map. But the real problem ends up being the battles.
Battles play out pretty similarly to the Total War series, as well. After an initial unit placement stage, the battle begins and you are tasked with getting your melee units onto the front line, with archers in back to provide ranged damage and cavalry flanking along the sides. Added to the formula are magic spells cast by your heroes which, if successful in penetrating your enemy's magic shield (an invisible protection represented by a meter at the top of the screen), can produce some truly devastating results. While the magic does add a new element to take into account, forcing you to continually adapt as different spells are flung at you, I would argue that some of the magic is too powerful, sometimes all but negating the tactics of your armies. During one encounter fairly early on, the enemy changed the weather from calm and sunny to torrential downpour. This had the effect of negating my archers as useful units (they couldn't even attempt to fire arrows), and since half of my army was ranged, I was quickly routed. When battles can completely hinge on who whips out the biggest spell, coordinating armies and tactics seems trivial.
As I mentioned earlier, the over-shiny graphics problem also severely affects battles. Whereas on the strategy map, you have all the time you need to get your bearings, in battle, time is of the essence. Unfortunately, those glowing trees and pearlescent grasslands make it very hard to even tell what's going on. And it's not just the landscape that's glaring; armor and weapons also sparkle, resulting in a mish-mash of color and light clashing with each other. Were it not for the big blue and red banners above each unit, there would be no way to even tell who was fighting whom. Of course, it doesn't help that on high settings, even a powerful computer would have trouble running this game at thirty frames per second. After about a dozen battles, I finally decided that I would much rather auto-resolve than fight, and that's never a good sign.
It's sad that I've come away from King Arthur 2 with such a negative impression. Almost universally, I crave more and better storytelling in my games. Here we have a game that's oozing with story, but that's about it. I wish the writing was enough to carry it into positive territory, but truth be told, the gameplay bored me to tears and I couldn't wait to put it down after even a half-hour session. Maybe King Arthur 3, if it's made, will find the right balance.
This review is based on a digital copy of King Arthur II: The Role-Playing Wargame for the PC provided by Paradox Interactive.